Craig Newmark points to Gene Weingarten’s predictable “I’m old and don’t understand the point of this Twitter thing all the kids are doing” column from earlier this month in The Washington Post. Weingarten complains that’s it’s hard to write anything profound in 140 characters or less, which of course misses the point. We’ve talked here before about how Twitter helps create a social sixth sense; I feel far more in touch with the friends I left behind in DC than I would without it. In just the past few weeks I’ve used the service to find a good barbecue joint in Kansas City (thanks, Tim!), locate sources for a paper I’m writing, express things I’d like to say but not write a full blog entry about, join my DC friends at a “virtual bar” as we watched the conventions and debate together, and possibly line up a regular writing gig.
Weingarten does bring up one thing that bugs me too, though:
My problem with Twitter is that it has become so big and so popular that some newspapers, including this one, are stuffing their latest headlines into Twitter alerts. Even the presidential candidates are kowtowing to it, sending out 140-character campaign news updates. (Some of these sound as though they were composed by the authors of product-assembly manuals from Taiwan. Here’s an actual McCain alert: “Hillary turned McCain bloggers shut down by blogger? . . . Doesn’t add up.”)
Lots of organizations are jumping onto the Twitter bandwagon, but I don’t think they really get the medium. I’m bombarded with Twitter accounts from think tanks and magazines whose updates just duplicate information that I’d rather get from RSS feeds, email subscriptions, or by visiting their websites.
The Cato Institute writes one of the better feeds. It includes some information I might not otherwise catch, like scholars’ upcoming media appearances and interesting news stories. Most of it, however, I’d rather get (and probably already do) via more traditional routes. Because the links are shortened to TinyURLs, I don’t know if I’m clicking on an op/ed, a paper, a podcast, a blog post, or a news site. And most of these items, though interesting, are just clutter when they show up on my mobile phone rather than on my computer. So as much as I like Cato, I don’t follow the feed. (All of this goes double for you bloggers who link every single one of your posts to your Twitter feed. An occasional highlight is fine, but let’s have some perspective here: If I’m on Twitter, I’ve probably mastered RSS.)
298 people do follow the feed, so their strategy is certainly working. Even so, I’d like see a better use of the medium. How about more spontaneous, timely tweets alerting me to events or TV and radio appearances? Cato has some witty people in the building; how about 140 word commentaries from them? Snarky remarks from Jerry Taylor or Jim Harper I would tune in for.
The company I’ve seen use Twitter best is Bell’s Beer. I visited their cafe in Kalamazoo, MI last month and updated my feed to say that I was there. Bell’s was following me before I finished dinner. They search for anyone mentioning their beer and add them as a friend, then update their own feed with the latest news about their beers, events, an inside look at what the staff is up to, and answers to questions from their fans. As a result they’ve brought in more than 400 followers in just over two months. (It helps that their beer is awesome too).
A newspaper column isn’t a blog post isn’t a Twitter update. As more organizations are tempted by this new medium, I hope they’ll put in the effort to make their updates truly worthwhile.
Update 9/28/08: Twitter fun fact: “In Dell’s case, the company says it’s made ‘well over’ $500,000 in sales from sending special offers from its Dell Outlet store to its Twitter group, which it began in June 2007. The group has almost 1,500 ‘followers’ who receive its messages on a regular basis.”